Find Comfort in Cold-Weather Hiking

Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are cold, wet, and hypothermic? Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are ensconced in layers of warm down with a mug of hot coffee in your hands? Enjoyment and delight in nature is so much easier if you are comfortable.

Read more about my cold-weather hiking tips on this blog post I wrote for Katabatic Gear:


Find Comfort in Cold-Weather Hiking

Find Comfort in Cold-Weather Hiking

By Renee “She-ra” Patrick, Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator

Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are cold, wet, and hypothermic? Can you enjoy the sunrise if you are ensconced in layers of warm down with a mug of hot coffee in your hands? Enjoyment and delight in nature is so much easier if you are comfortable.

I’ve spent many years as an outdoor professional hiking and adventuring in cold and wet weather, and have come to love the time I spend outside, even in the worst weather. Why? Because I’ve slowly evolved my systems so that I can be comfortable in just about any context. In fact, I think more folks will come to outdoor pursuits if we keep comfort at the top of the to-do list. 

I outlined my “comfort in the cold” strategy for a month-long Blue Mountains Trail thru-hike in October of 2020. During the hike, temperatures ranged from 70 to 5 degrees. My general rule of thumb was to plan for the worst conditions I could imagine; if the worst never came I’d still be comfortable…or if the worst came every day of the trip, I would still be able to continue.

Shelter

  • Freestanding tent – I set out to hike almost 500 miles in a month, and knew that October would bring short daylight hours. Most days I would be hiking until dark and possibly pitching my shelter on snow or frozen ground. If I was cold and wet I would need to get into my shelter fast and change clothes to prevent hypothermia, so I choose to bring a free-standing double-walled shelter. A double-walled shelter, even though it is heavier, can save you and your gear from becoming soaked (have you ever brushed the inside of a single-walled tent when it’s wet?). I also used my tyvek groundsheet on the inside of the tent as an extra moisture barrier because I knew my body heat would melt the snow or ground beneath me.
  • Two sleeping pads – I love sleeping on air and have used inflatable pads for years in all types of weather. In the winter hikers need to be aware of the law of thermal conduction. Simply stated, if you sleep on the ground and the ground is colder than you are, the ground will suck the warmth from your body until you are the same temperature as the ground. So to keep the air in my sleeping pad from becoming the same temperature as the ground, I take a closed-cell foam sleeping pad to use beneath the inflatable sleeping pad. It’s amazing how much warmer even an eighth-inch piece of foam will make you.
  • Shelter storage – Your tent will get frosty at night, primarily from your breath freezing on the inside of the shelter. Bring a separate waterproof stuff sack for a wet tent (if you are storing the tent in your pack) or keep it on the outside of your pack. You can take it out to dry during the day, but realize it might not get warm or sunny enough for a drying session, so plan to manage the cold and wet as if you won’t get the opportunity.

I learned to wear my Katabatic quilt as a cape to stay warm while cooking dinner. Photo by Renee Patrick

Sleep system

  • Down booties – Warm and dry down is the lightest and warmest insulation available, and wearing down booties at night does wonders to keep my appendages toasty warm even in the coldest temps.
  • Sleeping quilt/bag – Take a quilt or sleeping bag that matches or is rated for colder temps than you expect to encounter. This was the first time I used a cold-weather quilt, and Katabatic’s version was amazing. I discovered on one very cold night that I could turn the quilt around, keep my legs in the bottom half, and wear the top as a cape. I buttoned the quilt around my neck, which left my arms free to cook and eat. So cozy! And during the night I slept with my hooded fleece layer and my hooded down coat on so that I had three layers of warmth on my head: hat, fleece hood, down hood. Yes, even with a hoodless quilt you can keep your head warm, use those hoods!
  • Fill that empty space – if you find your sleeping quilt has a ton of extra space in it, try to fill that space with extra gear. Down works when your body heats the layer of air between you and the down. The more air your body needs to heat, the longer that space will take to get warm.
  • Don’t wear wind-blocking/waterproof layers to bed– If you block your body’s ability to warm the air in the quilt, you will not get warm, so take those raincoats, wind coats, and rain pants off. They will only prevent you from getting as warm as you could have.
  • Keep cold-vulnerable items warm at night – Electronics, medications (my epi pen), and wet wipes all come into the quilt with me at night. Think through all the things in your pack that could get damaged (or unusable) due to the cold, and throw them in your quilt with you.
  • Damp in the bag– It’s true that you can sleep with damp clothing and dry it out overnight with your body heat, but there are limits. Simply tossing your wet socks into the bottom of your bag might not do the trick if they get wadded up and never are exposed to your body heat. So I put things like mittens and socks next to my body in my long johns. Seriously. It’s a little cold at first, but they are toasty dry by morning.
  • Wear damp clothes to bed – Take the previous suggestion to the next level. The quickest way to dry a damp shirt is to wear it. Granted, this step should not be taken until you yourself are warm. Once your body has warmed up, you have eaten, and that internal furnace is stoked, take a deep breath and put that wet shirt on. It will suck, it will feel uncomfortable, but by morning your body will have dried it.
  • Hot water bottle– You can take a hot water bottle to bed if you have the right kind of bottle (I’ve only been comfortable doing this with a Nalgene). Pour some boiling water into your bottle and throw it to the bottom of your sleeping bag, or cuddle it.

Read the rest over on the Katabatic website

Exploring Oregon’s Outback One Step at a Time

Our weekly newspaper in Bend featured the Oregon Desert Trail last week! Read all about it here:


The Oregon Desert Trail connects people to place

By Damian Fagan in The Source Weekly

The Oregon Desert Trail, better known as the ODT, is a 751.7-route that traverses eastern Oregon, connecting the Badlands Wilderness to Lake Owyhee State Park. The trail slips through dense sagebrush steppe and ancient juniper forests, across lava flows and through canyons incised deep into an old land. There’s wild and wilderness and plenty of opportunities for solitude and solace.

“The story begins in 2010 when our former executive director Brent Fenty had the idea of connecting places where ONDA had been working in and to highlight some of the success such as the Badlands Wilderness and Steens Wilderness,” said Renee Patrick, Oregon Natural Desert Association program manager who oversees development and stewardship of the ODT. “In between those two areas, we have done a lot of conservation work and thought we could help people connect to this landscape through a trail or route and help them see these lands first hand.”

Descriptors such as the Oregon Outback, High Desert and Sagebrush Sea do justice to this desert landscape of sweeping vistas, rolling hills, fault-block escarpments and deep canyons.

As Patrick puts it, “You’ll see more pronghorn than people.” The concept of spending time exploring and getting to know this remote section of Oregon may be foreign to some more accustomed to exploring the Cascades, Oregon’s verdant spine. However, the desert landscape’s subtle beauty reveals itself to those who wander.

Author Ellen Waterston writes about living in and exploring the High Desert in “Walking the High Desert: Encounters with Rural America along the Oregon Desert Trail.” When asked about her experience, Waterston said, “The high desert is inscrutable at best, but during the winter especially so. I relish the palpable sense of all that’s brewing beneath the surface of the desert’s vast expanses. And while I’m waiting, nature puts on a show: hoarfrost exquisitely tracing the slimmest blade or branch, a coyote plowing its snout through the snow as it tries to rout a rodent out of hiding or pronghorn kicking up a wake of wintery glitter as they speed across an open savannah carpeted in white.”

The task of designing the route fell to Jeremy Fox, Patrick’s predecessor. He began the arduous task of sketching out the trail, utilizing existing resources such as trails, two-tracks, dirt and paved roads for most of the route. Private property and highly sensitive wildlife areas or habitats were skirted. Blank spots on the map were connected by cross-country travel; nearly 35% of the trail includes trailless sections where a hiker’s navigational skill will be challenged.

“Long-distance backpacking is not a traditional pastime in eastern Oregon in the desert,” said Patrick. “There’s a lot of curiosity and disbelief.” Patrick has worked hard at informing land and business owners about the trail that passes by their properties and towns. Now, landowners living in the outback have a different take for Patrick. “They don’t ask why; they tell me stories of hikers that have passed through—so it’s really rewarding to see that trail culture developing.”

Whitney LaRuffa hiked the ODT with a couple of friends in the fall of 2018. “I picked that trail because it’s a part of Oregon that I’ve visited and always wanted to see more of,” said LaRuffa, a seasoned long-distance trail hiker and vice-president of sales and marketing for Six Moon Design. “There was a true sense of adventure hiking the ODT compared to some of the more established long-distance trails that are more plug-and-play,” LaRuffa added.

For LaRuffa, it wasn’t just about being a thru hiker. “People we met along the way were all very friendly, making sure we had food and water and that we knew where we were going,” LaRuffa said. After his hike, LaRuffa spent time on an ONDA trail stewardship project, giving back to the area he had passed through.

Though the trail exists to hike in its entirety, day hiking or shorter overnighters are possible. ONDA provides excellent resources such as maps, GPS waypoints, information about water resources, and other trip-planning details on its website, along with information about the wildlife, geology and history of the region.

Central Oregon day hikers looking to go somewhere COVID-19 safe may enjoy exploring unique geologic features in the Christmas Valley and Fort Rock area or “the backside” Pine Mountain. ONDA also initiated the Badland Challenge to encourage exploration of over 50 miles of trails in the Badlands Wilderness, located just east of Bend, where the ODT starts or ends—depending upon your sense of direction.

Greater Hart-Sheldon: Sagebrush Stronghold

2020 may have turned our worlds upside down, but all that screen time for my once field-based job turned into an opportunity to go back to my roots in multi-media production.

I spent about half the year developing this awesome new researched-based story map for the Oregon Natural Desert Association with my passionate and super smart colleague Jeremy Austin.

This project helped me connect my graphic design and multi-media interests that started at Bradley University (yes, photoshop existed in 1995!), continued in grad school at Goldsmiths College (my dissertation revolved around taking the museum out of the museum…and I think this definitely qualifies as a virtual exhibit), and has now found a greater purpose in advocating for protection of our home…planet earth.

Take a few minutes and soak in the Greater Hart-Sheldon: Sagebrush Stronghold!

The Blues Beckon

The first written press about the Blue Mountains Trail came out! Check out this great article in the Baker City Herald:


Four Hikers Complete The New, 566-Mile Blue Mountains Trail

The Blues Beckon

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald

Renee Patrick started her epic walk through the Blue Mountains in the sweaty heat of July, and she finished it amid the nostril-freezing chill of an alpine autumn.


Along the 566 miles of hiking in between, Patrick was at turns challenged, enlightened and even awed by the eclectic landscapes of Northeast Oregon.

She also made history.


And now, a few months after she finished her trek, Patrick is helping to promote the Blue Mountains Trail, a route she and other proponents hope will join the ranks of America’s other long-distance wilderness paths.


“It’s fun to be at the beginning of an effort like this that people are excited about,” Patrick said in a Jan. 14 phone interview. “It’s exciting for the eastern half of the state to have more recreational opportunities. Northeast Oregon is not well-known, even by a lot of Oregonians.”

Although the current version of the Blue Mountains Trail is new, the concept dates back more than half a century.

Loren Hughes, a longtime La Grande jeweler who died on Jan. 29, 2016, envisioned a long hiking route through the Blue Mountains as far back as 1960.

Later, Hughes and Dick Hentze, who taught elementary school in Baker City from 1970 to 2000, conjured the idea of the Blue Mountain Heritage Trail.

Hentze, who moved from Baker City to the Eugene area in 2014, died on Aug. 8, 2020.

Mike Higgins of Halfway said in a Jan. 14 interview that he became involved with planning the trail in the 1990s along with Greg Dyson, director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

(The organization, based in La Grande, was renamed as the Greater Hells Canyon Council in 2017, its 50th anniversary.)

“The route was much different then,” said Higgins, an advisory board member for the Greater Hells Canyon Council.

The previously proposed trail was a loop that covered about 870 miles.

Among the notable differences, the current route — the one that Patrick helped pioneer with her hike in the summer and fall of 2020 — is point to point rather than a loop, with Wallowa Lake State Park at the northern end and John Day at the southern.

“The current route to me is a lot more attractive,” Higgins said.

In particular, he appreciates that the Blue Mountains Trail passes through all seven of the federal wilderness areas in Northeast Oregon — Eagle Cap, Hells Canyon, Wenaha-Tucannon, North Fork Umatilla, North Fork John Day, Monument Rock and Strawberry Mountain.

Higgins said he believes this concept, so long in the making, finally has momentum.

“I think it’s going to go this time,” he said. “Jared is going to make sure it goes.”

Jared in this case is Jared Kennedy.

He’s the Blue Mountains Trail project leader for the Greater Hells Canyon Council, a task that includes maintaining the trail’s website, https://www.hellscanyon.org/blue-mountains-trail

“This is an opportunity for people to get a much better idea of the landscapes of the Blues,” Kennedy said in a Jan. 14 interview. “It really ties the region together.”

But when it comes to connections, no amount of conceptual planning or pondering of maps can replace the actual experience of hiking the route, Kennedy said.

That’s why the efforts of Patrick and a separate group of three hikers were so vital.

That trio — Whitney La Ruffa, Naomi Hudetz and Mike Unger — hiked the entire Blue Mountains Trail during September.

Patrick said she exchanged information with the three other hikers about their experiences, particularly any problems they encountered with navigation, distances between water sources and other matters important to future hikers.

Now that four people have negotiated the route, Kennedy said he has a much better idea of the trail’s attributes — and its problems.

Although it’s called a trail the route does include several sections on Forest Service roads, although most of those are little-traveled roads in remote areas, Kennedy said.

There are no plans to propose the construction of any new trail, he said.

With so much new data to digest — including GPS waypoints and other digital details — Kennedy is striving this winter to make the trail’s website more informative.

His goal is to have an online guide for hiker-ready sections of the Blue Mountains Trail, including maps, by spring, in time for the prime hiking season.

“Prime” not necessarily being a synonym for “perfect” in this case.

Kennedy points out that the window for hiking the entire Blue Mountains Trail is a relative small one, although he acknowledges that the vast majority of hikers will only attempt sections rather than trying to cover all 566 miles in a single trip or even a single year.

The reason is elevation.

The trail samples each of the higher ranges of the Blues, including the Strawberrys, Elkhorns, Greenhorns and Wallowas. Sections of the trail in those areas climb well above 7,000 feet, and in places are reliably free of snow only during August and September.

Yet the trail also descends into Hells Canyon, where summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees.

Given that even an experienced long-distance hiker is likely to need 30 to 45 days to complete the entire trail, a start in July or early August would be the most plausible, both to avoid deep lingering snowdrifts from the previous winter, and the first storms of the next.

But a midsummer start has its own potential challenges, as Patrick discovered.

She began her journey at John Day in August. The temperature was 99 degrees. And the first day included a stint on a freshly blacktopped road (a rare paved section) and a 4,000-foot climb over 7 miles, among the more difficult ascents of the entire route.

Patrick said she took a break during the hottest part of that day and finished the climb in the comparative cool of the evening.

Her schedule allowed her to hike for only a week in August. She covered the 110-mile section from John Day to Austin Junction, where Highways 26 and 7 meet, about 50 miles southwest of Baker City.

Although that’s a longer trek than most hikers will ever attempt in a single trip, it’s little more than a jaunt by Patrick’s standards.

Few people can match her hiking resumé.

Patrick has thru-hiked — completing an entire trail in one year — America’s “triple crown” of long-distance routes, the Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide trails.

The cumulative mileage of that trio of epic trails is about 7,800 miles — 3,100 miles for the Continental Divide Trail, 2,610 for the Pacific Crest, and 2,100 for the Appalachian.

Patrick also helped to pioneer the Oregon Desert Trail in the state’s remote, sagebrush-dominated southeast corner. She hiked the 750-mile route in 2016, the year after she was hired as Oregon Desert Trail coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend, where she lives.

At 566 miles, the Blue Mountains Trail isn’t terribly daunting for a hiker with as many miles on her boots as Patrick.

But she said every route, regardless of distance, brings its unique challenges.

The Blue Mountains Trail, unlike the well-known and generally well-maintained Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails, includes several stretches that require hikers to “bushwhack” — find their own way across trailless (and roadless) stretches.

And although many of the trails and roads that comprise the Blue Mountains Trail are individually signed, there are no markers for this new trail itself.

“People need to be realistic about the challenges,” Patrick said. “It’s a great trail for section hiking, as a way to build your skills.”

Higgins, who helped La Ruffa, Hudetz and Unger during their thru-hike by meeting them at trailheads with boxes of food and other supplies, pointed out that the Blue Mountains Trail, because it is made up of so many existing trails and roads, has a multitude of access points.

And it features some sections that are easier to hike than others, such as the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail west of Baker City.

“You can select sections that match your skill level,” Higgins said.

Regardless of where you hike, though, you’ll be surrounded by some of Oregon’s most spectacular scenery, Patrick said.

Among the sections that especially entranced her is through the Eagle Cap Wilderness south of Wallowa Lake. That’s where she started her second and final stint on the trail, in early October.

The Blue Mountains Trail follows the West Fork of the Wallowa River to Frazier Lake, then crosses Hawkins Pass and descends to the headwaters of the South Fork of the Imnaha River.

“I absolutely loved hiking in the Eagle Cap,” Patrick said. “That’s really an awesome section.”

She also appreciated that the route allowed her to trace a major river — the Imnaha — nearly from its headwaters below Hawkins Pass to its mouth at the Snake River in Hells Canyon.

The Blue Mountains Trail affords the hiker a similar experience with the Grande Ronde River.

“When you see it from the start to where it ends you almost have a relationship with the river,” Patrick said. “I really enjoyed that.”

The Blue Mountains Trail is also enticing for both its geology, which includes rocks more than 200 million years old, as well as considerably more recent cultural history.

Patrick said that while she hiked through the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce tribe, including a section of the Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail, she listened to an audio version of “Thunder in the Mountains,” a historical account chronicling the Nez Perce being driven from the area in 1877 as white settlers moved into Wallowa County.

Patrick said the hike into and out of Joseph Canyon, named for Nez Perce Chief Joseph, was probably the hardest section of the Blue Mountains Trail.

Among the other difficult sections were those where wildfires have burned in the past decade or so. That includes what was otherwise one of Patrick’s favorite areas, the Wenaha River Canyon, which she describes as “amazing” and “beautiful.”

“Fire has affected a lot of the trails,” she said. “Every year more trees fall. It’s on ongoing maintenance issue.”

Nor is fire the only threat to some of the trail sections that make up the Blue Mountains Trail, Kennedy said.

“There are many, many sections of trail that are way behind in terms of maintenance,” he said.

Not long before Patrick finished her thru-hike in late October, she hiked the Elkhorn Crest Trail during an early preview of winter when temperatures plummeted into the single digits.

She wasn’t deterred — “I do a lot of cold weather and winter camping,” she said — but Patrick said the range of experiences, from her sweltering start to the frigid conclusion, was appropriate for a trail with so many moods.

Patrick, along with Kennedy and Higgins, hopes this newest addition to the West’s long-distance treks will not only enchant hikers, but also bring an economic benefit to the region.

The route comes close to several towns, including Baker City, La Grande and Enterprise, and Kennedy said local residents and businesses could earn extra money shuttling hikers between trailheads and providing other supplies and services that hikers would need.

Ultimately, though, she said the Blue Mountains Trail is a treasure for people who want to follow in her bootsteps.

“It’s a great opportunity for hikers,” Patrick said.

The Trail Show

I always love chatting with the crazy hikers over at The Trail Show podcast. This month I joined them for episode 101 to talk about the Blue Mountains Trail.

If you haven’t listened to The Trail Show before, it’s more about beer than gear, more about hiking shenanigans than not, more about the goofy trail culture of hiking long trails than a buttoned-up show that’s all miles and not smiles.

My interview starts at 13:10:

Read about the history of the Blue Mountains Trail here and here.

Start reading about my section hike of the BMT here (Section 1, August 2020) (Section 2, October 2020)

To Thru-Hike Is To Go Home

Enjoy this blog post I wrote for Six Moon Designs:

To Thru-Hike Is To Go Home

Joseph Canyon

The morning was blustery. Rain fell in sheets on my tent as I peeked outside, and I opted to hunker down just a little longer. Today was the day I would drop over 2,000’ into Joseph Canyon, the literal crux of the developing long-distance hike, the Blue Mountains Trail.

I was ground-truthing the 600-mile route in northeastern Oregon this fall, and walking off an unpredictable and traumatic year. The five weeks I spent navigating, strolling, bushwhacking, jaunting, and practically dancing my way through the remote mountain ranges and deep canyons of this corner of the state was going back to the “real world” for me. As thru-hikers come to know first hand on a long hike, what is real are the climbs, the cold springs, the sunsets the color of flowers. The real world is a tangible place and has been real for time immemorial.

Renee She-ra Patcrick Blue Mountain trail

A day welcomes me

My very real challenge that morning the rains wouldn’t let up was to touch the creek and canyon that was the birthplace of Cheif Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe, or the Nimiipuu people. A steep cross-country descent down an untested path would be much easier if I waited for the rain to stop and the sun to dry the mud and grasses; mud and grasses which would surely send me sliding down uncontrollably if I tried to hike it too soon. So I waited in my tent…waited for the sun and the wind to tell me it was time to go.

My escape from a global pandemic, from economic uncertainty, social unrest, and political theatrics was to find my rhythm in walking. In walking through a landscape that had been explored on foot for tens of thousands of years. My going back to the “real world” was based in a time frame that we can’t even begin to imagine. I may have been the first solo hiker to walk the proposed Blue Mountains Trail, but I was not the first to walk these canyons. I owe much to those who came before me, those who called these places home. And I wonder, can I call these places home?

To thru-hike is to know a place intimately, to know many places intimately. Experiencing the landscape at a three-mile an hour pace is to absorb the folds and tucks of a mountain ridge, to feel the change in air patterns as you drop into a drainage that flows through eons of rock and shifting fault lines. When I’m hiking, I feel like I am home, and for most of humanity, this was literally home. We lived so close to the trees and wildlife that we viewed them as family, and I am starting to as well.

Renee She-ra Patrick Blue Mountain Trail

A rare non-selfie on the Blue Mountains Trail

Thru-hiking opened my mind and body to the rhythms of the seasons and patterns of the landscape, and when I read indigenous author Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, I started to truly understand what I was already coming to know: that I could call these landscapes home. That the way forward through and out of our current modern-day traumas hinged on learning how to exist and thrive in these places. My ancestors did not live in Joseph Canyon, were not chased by the US Army over 1,000 miles from their birthplace in the Wallowa Mountains, but I am comforted by the sun, nurtured by the rains, and soothed by the trees in the Nimiipuu homelands.

I recently listed to a talk Robin gave, and she echoed words from an elder who told her that many descendants of colonizers seem to act like they “still have one foot on the boat. ‘They’re acting like they’re not really here. That they’re just going be here and to take what they can get and go somewhere else.’ Well, there isn’t any ‘somewhere else’ anymore.” To become “native to place,” she explained, is “to live as if your ancestors were from here and live as if your grandchildren are going to grow up here.”

The mindset of many who followed the false narrative of manifest destiny was an extractive one. The westward expansion was fueled by a desire to “tame” the wild places, the wild beasts, and the people who had lived in the wild longer than western civilization had existed. The mindset of many was to view the land as a resource to be used and profited from.

Thru-hiking has helped me understand these truths and look beyond them. I understood when I walked through a clear-cut, then walked through a lush and diverse stand of old-growth trees. I understood when I walk above the dammed Snake River and then along the free-flowing John Day River. Thru-hiking has helped me become native to place, not just along the Blue Mountains Trail, but to all the places I’ve hiked through over the past 20 years.

The Appalachian Mountains were teachers of persistence as I labored up the roots and rocks of the 480-million old range that had once towered to heights rivaling the Rockies and Alps. The sky islands of the Arizona Trail taught me resilience as I marveled at the biological refugias interspersed between vast tracts of desert. The extensive playas and sagebrush sea of the Oregon Desert Trail taught me humility as I placed myself in time with the oldest (known) evidence of human habitation in North America. These places are home, and to know that is to have a relationship with the land.

The Nez Perce National Historic Trail traces the flight of the Nez Perce from their homelands while pursued by U.S. Army in 1877

I get so much from spending weeks and months of my life walking and sleeping on the earth. What am I giving back? I start with gratitude. I thank the sun for warming me, and the springs for their cold water. I talk to the deer and elk, and even the rattlesnake and bear. I try not to face any part of nature with fear, but with humility and an open heart. We are not pitting ourselves against nature. That paradigm does not help us find a way through an environment practically poisoned by our antics of the past few hundred years, but we are a part of nature. We are supported by these very same living ecosystems that we have been extracting “resources” from to live in our walls and drive our cars.

We thru-hikers have something to teach and something to learn. We can teach others how to see these lands as home, and how to treat these lands as family. We can learn from the land when it’s an appropriate time to hike 2,000’ down into that canyon, and how to coexist within a network of life. We may not have grandparents and great grandparents that slept in these canyons and caves, but we can be native to place. We can help the world see what Robin Wall Kimmerer so eloquently teaches: reciprocity. And we can continue to learn from those who have lived here since time immemorial.

To thru-hike is to learn what home is, again.

Photos and words by Renee “She-ra” Patrick, Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator

Blue Mountain Trail Photos

I spent the last few days uploading over 1,500 photos of my Blue Mountains Trail hike to this Flickr collection, and updating my blog posts with these photos 👇. Enjoy!

Oh, and the Greater Hells Canyon Council now has a page up on their website about the BMT (sign up to get trail newsletters), and the first presentation is coming up soon…Whitney, Mike, Naomi, and Jared will be teaming up with Portland’s Mountain Shop for a free online presentation: register now!

The Blue Mountains Trail – A 60-year vision gains momentum

Read about the history of the Blue Mountains Trail in a blog post I wrote for Katabatic Gear.

I’ve been learning a lot about the history of the Blue Mountains Trail since setting out in August to ground-truth 100 miles of this potential 600-mile route. The current alignment of the route appears like a swirl around the stunning granite mountain ranges in north eastern Oregon, but diverges significantly from the original vision for this trail, born in 1960 on a horsepacking trip in the Blue Mountains.

In fact, what I initially thought of as a recent effort by the Greater Hells Canyon Council to create an immersive backpacking experience designed to engage the recreation community in conservation issues has a much longer and varied history than I could have imagined.

As with many good ideas, this one grew out of a love of place. Blue Mountains Trail founder and Oregon conservation icon Loren Hughes had a long and active relationship with the forests and rivers in the Blue Mountains. Just a few of his monikers include director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council (now the Greater Hells Canyon Council), director of the Oregon Wilderness Coalition, and “Mr. Five Cent-er” a nickname bestowed after he successfully used one 5-cent stamp to appeal six US Forest Service timber sales. In addition, this tireless environmentalist was active in efforts to form the Eagle Cap Wilderness and North Fork John Day Wilderness…an incredible resume for a man who spent a significant portion of his livelihood as a jeweler in La Grande.

A young Loren Hughes – photo from GHCC

Save the Minam Crew – photo from GHCC

Loren’s vision gained steam when he appealed to friend Dick Hentze, an avid backpacker and Baker City school-teacher, to help him with the trail idea. The two spent the next several decades dreaming up their route, exploring possible alignments in the mountains, and with Dick’s love of maps, they created the first iteration of the trail, an 870-mile loop originally conceptualized as the Blue Mountain Heritage Trail.

What these men proposed was a circular route that touched Hillgard Station; a state park just north of La Grande (and a stop on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800’s); followed the snaking river canyons of the Umatilla, Wallowa, and Wenaha Rivers; took a turn along the rim of Hells Canyon (the deepest river canyon in the country…yes…deeper than the Grand Canyon); to skirt the southern edges of the Wallowa Mountain Range and back into the mountains via the Burnt River and over to the John Day River drainages and back around to Hillgard Station.

Just a quick glimpse at a map reveals miles and miles of trails crossing all through these mountain ranges. It was surely a difficult task to decide what would be the best routing for their vision…I would guess there are hundreds of route options that would give hikers an immersive journey into the heart of north eastern Oregon. In fact, their research revealed the original route would encompass 2,000-miles of additional trails. Can you imagine?

At the heart of this trail effort was the Hells Canyon Preservation Council (which later was renamed as the Greater Hells Canyon Council or GHCC). The group was created in 1967 to stop Hells Canyon and the Snake River from being dammed, actions that later led to the protection of the area as the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. The men played key roles in the efforts to honor the natural wonders of the area, and those who knew them well will be thrilled to know the trail is routed through the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, Eagle Cap Wilderness, North Fork John Day Wilderness, North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, Strawberry Mountains Wilderness, Monument Rock Wilderness, Elkhorn Mountains, and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

2010 marked a big year for the Blue Mountains Trail. By that time the men had engaged another passionate outdoorsman and life-long eastern Oregonian, Mike Higgins. Mike had also been intimately involved in local environmental efforts, and served on the board of the Oregon Natural Resources Council (now called Oregon Wild) prior to getting involved in the resurrection of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council. Together the men had formed a nonprofit, partnered with the Forest Service, engaged interested parties in Baker City, and had generated considerable excitement in the local and recreation communities.

Mike Higgins – photo from GHCC

In fact, when looking back at several articles written about the trail in that time-frame, I was curious to find a major motivating factor for all parties involved was to help diversify the economy in the area and develop the recreation infrastructure that would attract foreign tourists to these far reaches of Oregon. A European backpacking-style experience was envisioned, and the route was designed to lead hikers to roads or trailheads every 10-12 miles or so where they could be picked up by a local inn or bed and breakfast, shuttled around each day, and essentially slack-packed the entire route (hiking with just a day-pack). Inspirations for this style of hiking can be found all over Europe like the Camino routes in Spain and different footpaths in England and Scotland.

However, routing hikers to roads and trailheads frequently meant they wouldn’t be experiencing the deep wilderness areas where bears, wolves, elk, and cougar still roamed freely. Trails can be designed with many different user experiences in mind, and this one was a noble effort at getting more people out in approachable sections of trail while spending time and money in the communities that serve as the backbone of this region. (I would definitely stay in some of those bed and breakfasts if they are still on the route today!)

Despite all the energy and excitement around the trail two-decades ago, a series of tragic events derailed the efforts, including a deep and personal loss in Dick’s life. The trail idea was still alive on the backburner, but major efforts to move it forward were at a standstill until 2016. At Loren’s unfortunate passing, the Greater Hells Canyon Council renewed their efforts to realize the Blue Mountains Trail and included it in their strategic plan.

Enter GHCC board member Jim Kennedy. Jim and his family loved exploring different landscapes on trails, and with the GHCC’s renewed sense of purpose to complete the Blue Mountains Trail, he shared the vision with his son, Jared Kennedy. It sounds like Jared positively jumped at the chance to continue the dream, and the two of them poured over the previous trail materials with Mike Higgins.

Jared explained that he noticed some of the most iconic, scenic, and remote parts of the Blues were missing from the original route, so he set to work rerouting and revising the alignment to find a new way to tie the ecoregion together into a thru-hike. That’s about the time that I got involved in the effort, and over a series of phone calls and emails with Jim and Jared, I encouraged them to think of a route concept, similar to what the Oregon Natural Desert Association had created in the Oregon Desert Trail (or ODT, a 750-mile route that I have been working to establish for the last five years). I shared examples of the numerous resources that I had created for the ODT, and learnings from the relatively fast trajectory of the Oregon Desert Trail from idea to reality in just a handful of years.

An additional objective that Jared brought to the table was including the high peaks of the Wallowas, Elkhorns, Greenhorns, and Strawberry ranges. The three men also identified key peaks, wilderness areas, state parks, and towns they wanted to include in the alignment, and the current spiral shape of the now 600-mile path formed in response to these highlights.

Another reality set in when Jared, Jim, and Mike looked at the current landscape to find numerous fires had burned through some of the stunning sections of the route, and many miles of trails and roads had been neglected, ignored, or deliberately decommissioned. A tricky issue is that many of these routes still appear on maps, when in fact they don’t exist in a hikeable form today. Mining claims have popped up along sections of the trail (this area has a long long history of gold mining), private land boundaries have changed, and poison oak, blackberries, and deadfall create additional barriers on the ground.

The original Blue Mountains Trail is shown here in gray, with one of the first alignments of the “new” BMT overlaid in color.

This year Jared had a line on the map, and the goal was to find enough hikers willing to brave the unknown conditions to hike and document what was actually on the ground. I volunteered at first mention, and enticed some other experienced hikers I know to try and hike the entire route as well.

And what are we finding? An amazingly scenic and remote outdoor experience. Yes, some of the trails have been damaged by fire, are overgrown, and are blocked by tree-fall, but since there are several of us out hiking this year, we are exploring different options with the hope of finding an alignment (or as I like to say, the path of least resistance) that “goes.” If the Blue Mountains Trail can be hiked through a series of trails that are still in passible shape, connected to roads which bring hikers to and from towns, then later down the line some sweat can go into opening and clearing some of those neglected trails once again. As with many long-distance trails, each year brings changes in the mileage and in the alignment. This effort will be ongoing, but by using the route concept, the Greater Hells Canyon Council should be able to get folks out there hiking sooner rather than later and slowly work towards the deeper wilderness experience that still touches on the incredible communities found along the way. Although the European-style hiking concept will likely be modified from the original 10-12 miles between trailheads vision, I can easily imagine a scenario where a hiker can still get picked up from a trailhead, shuttled back to a cozy bed and hearty meal for the night, and whisked back to the Blue Mountains for the next leg of their journey.

There is so much more I want to explore about the Blue Mountains Trail concept, including the love of place this route hopes to inspire in the recreation community; the understanding of the Native American and homesteading histories of this region; the geology, habitat, and important ecological lynchpin nature of this area; the roles hikers can take if they are moved by their experience to get involved in the many conservation issues facing this corner of Oregon…there is so much more to say. Stay tuned for more explorations into the story of the Blue Mountains Trail…it will help prepare you for your hike out there when it’s ready to go!